The most famous of Robben Island’s political prisoners is Nelson Mandela, a founding member of the ANC’s Youth League and co-founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Incarcerated for twenty-seven years (first in Robben Island, then at Pollsmoor Prison), he was released in 1990. He served as ANC President from 1991 to 1997 and as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mandela has shown an affinity for quoting Shakespeare—in political speeches, and in his autobiography—and tended to select a passage reflecting resolution in the face of death. For him to sign his name by Julius Caesar’s stoic declaration, then, is not so surprising. The larger irony of this selection lies in its context as the speech of a would-be tyrant. The stoic sentiment, out of context, may have spoken to the condition of his life as a revolutionary leader, but Mandela—so unlike Caesar—was ready to die because of the fullness of his life, and his dedication to a just, fulfilled existence for all people.
"Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come." (2.2.32–7)